Though I’m not a “music educator” per se, I have worked daily with flute (and sometimes band) students of all ages and abilities for a very long time. What I can predict with a great deal of accuracy for you is where students are going to breathe, especially if their only musical experience has been in band. Where would you guess? They are going to breathe on the bar line, whether it fits the phrase or not. This is true for beginners and frequently for fairly advanced high school students. It’s been my observation over all the years I’ve spent teaching lessons in schools, that the vast majority of times, the kids are rehearsed and taught to practice measure to measure, single beat to single beat from practically the day they start playing their instrument. I genuinely would like to know why this is. As a consequence, I hear kids play everything from beat to beat and measure to measure, regardless of phrase structure. In fact, the kids seem to be completely oblivious to the idea that a musical phrase is a thing. 

We all know the melodies shown here because we use them all the time with beginners. In the first two tunes, the phrases are clearly straight two bar phrases with the correct breathing on the bar line. The implied harmony shows us this, as does the poetry of these well known songs. Where I guarantee we run into trouble is when  we start to introduce tunes that have a pick-up of some sort and/or phrases that end after the bar line. The commas show the correct breaths. The red check marks show where I predict for you that kids will breathe unless you have taken the time to explain otherwise. (Kids who sing tend to have a much better understanding of breathing and phrasing.) If you know the words to this song, it becomes immediately apparent why the red check marks are so very incorrect. Who takes a breath before the very last……word? “O give me a….home where the buffalo…..roam” Nobody talks like this nor do they sing like this. Why do we let kids play their instruments like this? Why don’t we have kids sing more? (A topic for another time.) They would develop a more intuitive sense for good phrasing.

It does take a few extra minutes to explain phrasing and correct breathing to your students in the context of whatever piece you are preparing for the next concert. I am certain that there is more phrasing that starts and ends in the middle of a measure than ends squarely on the bar line at virtually every level of playing and in every style/period of composition. We want our students to love music. I really believe it is essential to not only teach them to form an embouchure, blow with an energized air column and develop sound technique, but to teach them the language of music, i.e., phrasing and inflection. When one learns to respect and observe the phrasing, developing an emotional connection the music comes as a natural consequence.

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